Once Around The Sun

12315 km


THE MONGOLIAN ROAD TRIP

When two weeks ago I've mentioned about going off the map, I've had no idea! My limits have been found and pushed, while Majka is happy beyond words that we are back to a land of showers and asphalt roads. I think she's really angry with me because I've promised her a shower every day or at least every other day, but for now she's all smiling and forgiving. Ticking bomb if you're asking me and I think we're about to find another limit... But here's the other side of the coin. Our itinerary followed by a day by day journal.

DAY 1: At 8.30 in the morning our driver Bago exclaimed 'Ready!' and that's how it started. Doljmaa seen us out and checked one last time that we have all the essential survival equipment. Korean military sleeping bags, tent and very basic cooking equipment. Bago was our driver just for the first day. A short and very happy fellow with a laughter that comes naturally to him, but I wouldn't be able to master in 1000 years.

Just 30 minutes on the road, past the first hill, all signs of civilisation have disappeared and a vast grassland dotted with gers opened up ahead of us with a road straight as arrow heading west. At around 3 in the afternoon our car turned right and off to a dirt road. We drove for another hour and eventually pulled up behind 4 gers in the middle of a grassland surrounded from three sides with rocky hills. One of the gers had a solar panel on the left and a satellite dish from the right. Dodo, a herder nomad, lived here with his wife and three children. He got to be our host for the night and what a night it was! Seems unbelievable to me that a family is willing to shelter and feed strangers even if not for free, the bill is symbolic, and often small gifts are sufficient. We have been offered tea and snacks followed by dinner. Later we've played games and drunk Vodka. What followed was an 80's Disco on the front of their ger, music playing from the other drivers Russian van and about a 150 head goat herd following our 'party' from just few meters away... and more Vodka of course. Unfortunately after many shots of Vodka I still remember more than I care to admit...

DAY 2: My alarm went off at 8am. I went to a toilet about 100m east from our gee, a 3 metre hole in a ground with 2 planks of wood over it and shielded from 3 sides. A bit uncomfortable, but undoubtedly a toilet with the best view I've ever been to.

After we did the most of morning hygiene we possibly could given the circumstances, we have swapped drivers. Ulzii with his Russian made 'UAZ' disco machine will be our driver and guide. Our travel companions are Sandrine and Ben from France. The 5 of us will share the next 14 days, whatever these days may bring.

Soon we are on the road and except of a few pee breaks and a lunch break he drives through excruciating dust roads for 10 hours straight, until we arrive at White Lake. We stay in a ger camp. Gers are not as nice as the one from last night, but the scenery makes up for it. We have a quick dinner and when I next walk out of our ger, my jaws dropped from seeing so many stars. No light pollution at all, just pitch dark. Been a while when I've seen our Milky Way the last time. Magical...

DAY 3: Today I woke up sick. So did our driver. Feverish and weak. Couldn't even have breakfast. I shouldn't have stayed out under the sky so long. Nights are very cold already. Now I'm paying for it. Thankfully we have another day and night scheduled at White Lake, which I've spent in the bed, except when we went to wash our clothes and ourselves in the freezing waters of the lake. Thank god for the warm sun, but the temperature is below 20C and the water is freezing cold. Not the kind of thing I would normally do when ill. After 'shower' I rest while Mariola explores the shore. Of course she took care of me... ...a little...

DAY 4: I woke up feeling much better, but Ulzii is hopelessly searching for a pharmacy on a Sunday morning. Breakfast, quick wash and off we go. 8-9 hours straight, stopping only for lunch and pee breaks, we arrive at Telmen Lake. Is about 6 in the afternoon and Ulzii informed us we need to move soon to find us a family to stay with. First time on our journey we don't have an arranged place. A bit disappointing to look at a lake for 10 minutes after driving whole day, but this is the price we need to pay in order to get to our destination for the weekend of 19.-20.September.

After a short break we are back in the Russian UAZ driving the endless dirt roads of Mongolia. It is getting dark and we need a miracle to find a nomad family that will take us in for the night. We are lucky. The first place we stop at is an actual building that normally serves as a clinic for nomad families. We are sheltered in the largest room which I suspect serves as both, waiting room and ordinary.

Mongolian cuisine of half cooked mutton meat and noodles is starting to get to us so we opt for instant noodles. Soon after the 4 of us and the driver populate the free floor space and are off to sleep. The nights are cold, but tonight we have the luxury of the brick walls and Korean military sleeping bags...

DAY 5: Today we were close to push another limit. I think there is some ass kicking coming my way.

Woke up at 8, breakfast, quick wash, pack and left around 9. Ulzii is still not at he's best. We are stopping just 2 hours into our drive what is quite a relief for our backs. He finds a pharmacy and comes back showing a syringe and a big dose of calcium in his palm and then goes off again and doesn't show for half an hour. Is 12.20pm when he comes back signalling that he had received his medicine and now we need to eat and drink tea. Lunch it was... Once we were on the move again we have not stopped for hours. Dirt roads, bumps, dust, speeding through the steppes of wild Mongolia I would have never thought I will be asking for a piece of asphalt. Even the nomad gers seem to be giving in numbers. With only 2 stops we arrive at Khyrgas Lake in the late afternoon. Unlike the other days it was very windy and cold. We pull up at the first ger set back from the beach. Single standing with the closest neighbour a few hundred meters away. Looks like it can do with some repair, the gaping hole next to the door is just one of the few things I've noticed. Ulzii calls out but no one is home. In few moments we've noticed someone on a motorbike coming our way from the other ger. It is windy. We are cold and tired. After a short talk the guy invites Ulzii into the ger, who then gives me a signal to follow. We sit down, they talk, I watch. Dried yoghurt and tea is offered. The ger looks old, out of shape, generally poor, very different to our first authentic ger experience. When they stopped talking I've introduced myself and found out the herders name is Mukho. His two children and wife are in the village, away until late afternoon tomorrow. The ger 'next door' is his mothers. They talk again. Few more minutes into their conversation Ulzii announces: 'OK, we stay tonight!'. Not really what I wanted to hear, but I thought 'challenge accepted'. Went out for the rest of the gang and passed on the news. The four of us returned and sat around Mukho and Ulzii. More dried yoghurt and tee was offered. The ger looked really shabby and I could see Majka has developed a brand new face expression. Anger, fear, confusion, disgust... She looked like what I imagined the universe might have been before the Big Bang, calmly ticking, counting down. I knew I will enjoy the full blow of the explosion.

Mukho shared a few words only Ulzii understood, then he left us. Looking at each other Ulzii understood our doubts about today's accommodation and he said: 'We go sleep guest house!'. About two thirds happy and one third disappointed I followed the lot to our UAZ, but before I've left a few sweets in Mukho's ger as 'thank you' for the tea.

The guest house was still looking shabby, but was a 5 star hotel compared to what we have run away from. Dinner, wash, sleep and repeat...

DAY 6: First time since Ulaanbaatar we've woken up in a bed. Spring bed, so it felt like sleeping in a bath, but still a relief after rock hard beds and floors of previous nights.

Breakfast, wash, pack and we are on the road again. After two days of dirt roads it's a relief to see asphalt road straight as arrow disappearing in the horizon. Or so I thought. Eventually the asphalt disappeared in the dust of Mongolian steppes and road work constructions. Many roads are being built. Mongolia is very cautious of its mineral rich territory and the government is investing a lot in new infrastructure. One thing worth mentioning is that the government requires all surface mines to be filled in after they are exhausted. Also when people are about to 'scar' the land a Lama is called to bless the project and to pray to the gods for forgiveness. Mongolians love their land and nature, I can only hope that democracy and capitalism will not change that.

Is about 1 in the afternoon and Uvs Lake appears in the distance. After another half an hour we are on the beaches of this salty lake. Camels, cows and goats are feeding undisturbed until we try to make it too close. Camels seem to love a strange red grass with slim juicy leaves. Cows and sheep prefer the long grass, while goats also lick the white salt off the rocks and dried lake bed. The lake itself is giant and reflects the snowy mountain tops and blue sky. Unfortunately once again there is not too much time to take in the scenery and shortly we are on the road to Ulaangom. Is still early so we decide for a lunch break and then we look for accommodation. Ulzii presents us with a very shabby guest house, but the presence of a German couple is reassuring so we take it. There is even a shower... Quick and thorough wash after another 3 days of total absence of running water and I'm out on the streets of Ulaangom. I gave up my hopes of any street photography as I turn out to be an attraction for the local people. Too tall, damn it! But gave up too close, people were friendly and willing to talk sign language, so I took advantage of that. On my return to the guest house, Majka too wanted to have a look around the town. Strong winds and a rain shower finished our exploring too early. Our pickiness about Mongolian food took us to a local fast food in hope of ordering a Margherita and we are punished for our decision with old food of unspeakable quality. On our return to the guest house our French 'trippies' and Ulzii stopped by and we shared some card games and a bottle of Vodka.

DAY 7: We left the guest house early and happy that we are out of it. Heading out of Ulaangom the asphalt road disappears into dust at the town borders. One turn led and we are taking the mountains head on. The UAZ seems to be happier on the dirt roads and is happily squealing through the landscape. Is a long drive again, but we finally make it to Achit Lake. Ulzii spots a ger and goes for it. By now we all know what's to follow. He will negotiate us the floor space at a family ger. Unfortunately this time is impossible and after a short talk with very nice sisters and one's boy we are in the car. As we start moving, something snaps and the car stops. Ulzii runs out, looks through the grill and announces that we will be here for a while. The sun is low and he needs to be quick with the repair. Fortunately the sisters invite us to the ger for a tea and snacks. I am trying to help the driver who looks desperate, but it seems I'm best help when out of the way. An hour later the sun is just dipping behind the mountains and we are on the move, but it's getting dark and we need a family. No one in the car makes a noise, atmosphere is quite tense, it is getting pitch black out there and Mongolians go to sleep and awake with sun. We are lucky again. A tiny dot in the distance suggest a ger. As we're getting close it appears to be a half wooden, half brick building with a flat roof. 'Kazakh family, maybe lucky!', said Ulzii and hopped out to knock on the door. Lucky indeed. He comes back very soon and 'Tonight we sleep here!', comes out of him. As we walk in it almost looks like a witch house, somewhat scary but charming and curious. Reminds me of the mud house my grandparents lived in. So do the occupants, and older couple, Paki and Lina. Such beautiful characters... They offer snacks and tea as usual, but still with a little twist. Kazakh and Mongolian cultures have differences but similarities too. The surprise comes when their son and Lina's brother arrive. We all sit around a low table and trying to make a conversation. Suddenly I start noticing things like a saw, hand drill, knifes... Very dim light, with all those 'weapons' around starting to resemble a horror movie. Of course is just a paranoia. We are very lucky again and we have the nicest hosts. Lina cooks us a dinner of mutton meat roasted in fat over low heat with some kind of pasta looking like steamed pancakes. Delicious and such a nice change to have a tender cooked meat. After dinner Paki plays the tambourine and sings for us. Most memorable nigh so far...

DAY 8: We've slept in the kitchen on a wooden platform raised to waist level, covered with felt and hand stitched carpets. Not much softer then the ground but surely warmer than the floor. I had quite a good night sleep and have woken up to a sunny day. Today we are meant to arrive in Ulgii and will be staying at Doljmaa’s brother. Quite looking forward to this meeting, but before we stop at the ‘Black Market’. It is basically a market, which used to have illegal imported items during socialist times, but the name stuck. I have a feeling that there is almost anything on the market, but nothing I can use. After some browsing I’ve found a hat that I desperately needed in the windy steppes. We also buy some fruits, which are quite rare in Mongolia and expensive too.

In the afternoon we arrive to our hosts for tonight, where I found out that the lady of the house is a nurse at the local hospital. I take the opportunity and ask whether she could help me find a chiropractor, as I have been suffering for days, from what I think is a slipped disc. She makes some calls and next I know we are sitting in the UAZ heading to the hospital, where a Young nurse without so much a word pulls out a syringe ready to stab me. Not that I’m afraid of needles, but I can’t see how any would help my back pain. The house lady hand signs something to me, then says ‘no pain’. I suppose is some kind of painkiller. I try to object again, that this is not a solution to my problem, but I give up soon and since I’ve been popping Ibuprofen, I decide it can’t hurt. I’m stabbed and we return to my house ladies residence, where she tells me that I’m ready for a massage. She rubbed my back with Argali fat. Argali is an endangered species of wild sheep, that her husband had, Doljmaa’s brother, had shot. Again, there is no point to object and anyway my attention is focused on our driver trying to play the Morin Khuur, a traditional Mongolian instrument also called the horsehide fiddle...